In 1960, the Poodle dethroned the Beagle as the AKC’s most registered breed and did it by the most decisive margin yet recorded in history. Its ascension could be largely credited to one 9.5-inch tall, 8-pound grey dog, claimed to have the highest appraisal value of any canine in history.
This is the story of that little dog and the man who recognized within him charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent so great it compelled him to share it with the whole world. From this seeming trifle of a tale emerges true testament to the human-canine bond. Amidst it also lies mystery, and tragedy, as the man made such a strong case for the dog’s innate specialness, it resulted in the loss of what he held most dear.
Like all shameless self-promoters, this man, Count Alexis Pulaski, left quite the paper trail of his exploits. Some rouse suspicion, from the claim he was personal groom to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed Scottie Fala, to the appellation of “Count,” which is dubiously listed as his middle name in immigration records. But we’re here to stick to the verifiable truths in the process of creating a legend. The real story needs no exaggeration.
The Origin Story of “Mr. Poodle”
“Count” Alexis Pulaski was born shortly before the turn of the 20th century. Early newspaper accounts refer to him as a “White Russian,” a term applied to Anti-Communists who fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Following their defeat, he joined a large movement of exiles; naturalization records confirm that he arrived in America in 1926.
Questionable title non-withstanding, Pulaski was a classic bon vivant, tall, urbane, and seemingly born silver-haired. He possessed the gift for gab; as the Post later remarked, “Pulaski is the kind of man who could sell a crate of Boy Scout Handbooks to Nikita Khrushchev.” His wit and continental airs quickly ingratiated him to the upper echelons of New York society. He also dabbled in the overlapping world of dogdom, selectively breeding and showing Doberman Pinschers as he had in Russia since 1912, while running photography and grooming businesses to limited success. In 1939, while fatefully babysitting the Poodles of friend Gilbert Kahn, he switched breed affiliations and never looked back. He had found his calling.
With the financing of Kahn and R. Stuyvesant Pierrepont, another well-to-do heir and Poodle man, Pulaski opened Poodles, Inc. at 51 West 52nd Street around 1945. It was located in the former site of the legendary speakeasy the Ha-Ha Club, only a few doors down from the famous, still-operating 21 Club. Poodles, Inc. combined all of the viable canine-related industries of the time, simultaneously operating as a grooming salon, a boarding kennel, and a high-end haberdashery of dog furnishings ( “a Tiffany among dog suppliers”). But unlike the nearby Canine Couturier, it catered strictly to its breed of choice. This exclusivity inevitably lent a social club air to Poodles, Inc., which also served as a showcase for the dogs Pulaski had begun to breed around what he called the “pursuit of happiness” philosophy, contending that the Poodle’s true end in life is to supply his master with a maximum of pleasure.
Pulaski achieved this pinnacle upon the birth of a litter on August 4, 1946, as he became completely taken with the carriage, comportment, temperament, and charm of its largest pup. After 8 weeks of observation and training, he registered the grey dog possessing aristocratic airs with the AKC under the resolute name “Pulaski’s Masterpiece.” Later Pulaski reflected, “it was as though Masterpiece himself were the very beginning of the breed.”
From the Show Ring to the Society Pages
Masterpiece made an inauspicious debut in the puppy class at Westminster in 1947. He barely survived a bout with distemper and was sent to convalesce in New Jersey for several weeks. Recovered and physically matured, in short time he gathered enough points at regional shows to achieve a championship title and added obedience and utility titles in only a few short weeks said by Pulaski to be a record. He was, in fact, the first toy dog to ever achieve the trifecta. He set out to prove the dog’s mettle beyond New York, traveling to Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, where he was allegedly welcomed by parties of up to 100 guests, and an equal number of dogs. His worshipping owner quickly deemed him destined for even greater things beyond the sport. Pulaski devised a singular “rigid, masculine cut” for Masterpiece, exposing only the mid-drift, which he hoped would cast the dog in a less pigeonholing light than the pom-pom Continental cut required in the show ring.
Pulaski commissioned a complete set of clothes, “both amusing and serviceable,” including pajamas, bathrobe, and raincoat for Masterpiece. With Pulaski serving full-time as press agent, Masterpiece was assigned his own bodyguard, who supervised his diet and hand-fed him during “moody spells;” a personal beautician who saw to his regular pampering; a former lion tamer who was imported to provide private instruction in party tricks; and a travelling companion, Lucy Copestake, who saw the world with him.
Cocktail parties at Pulaski’s Upper East Side apartment were said to include guests from Mexico City, Paris, Budapest, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Rio De Janeiro – representatives from the press as well as artists, veterinarians, investment bankers, and “ladies and gentlemen of leisure.” Masterpiece would perform on command, walking on his front or hind paws and communicating through grunts and growls. Famously to the question, “Are you a Communist, Masterpiece?” he would shake his head in vigorous denial. Although disapproving tricks for their own sake, Pulaski claimed that Masterpiece’s exceptional mental and muscular apparatus should be regularly exercised and refined.
At Poodles, Inc., twenty paintings of “poodle fantasies” were put on display as a nightclub harpist strummed in the background. The centerpiece was Masterpiece and his harem atop ornamental cushions, maintaining an elegant tranquility. It was most important that Pulaski’s Poodles appear neither chained nor confined, “They reposed at their leisure, were gracious to all comers, and proved by their behavior how easily they could be trained to perfection.” His carrying case was designed as a deep picture frame, befitting his name, and eventually, he was accompanied by armed guards at either side of the animate “masterpiece.”
The Most Valuable Dog in the World
Masterpiece became so famous that the Pakistani prince Ali Khan tried to purchase him as a gift for his actress wife Rita Hayworth at the sum of $25,000. Pulaski balked at the thought of parting with his beloved companion but claimed the purchase price apt, as Masterpiece earned $11,000 a year as a stud dog and model, necessitating his own bank account at Chase National. Pulaski claimed that he refused, by shake of the head, to mate with a female for less than $500, and ultimately sired approximately 350 dogs. Owners of Masterpiece brethren included Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, and Eva Peron. He was said to test and use all of the products he endorsed for Poodles, Inc., not only shampoos, towels, matches, and bowls but even a perfume called “Kennel No. 9.” He also appeared as a spokesman in ads for hosiery, shoes, drapery, and telephones, some which graced the pages of Vogue magazine.
Lucy Copestake reported that upon their arrival in Paris, LIFE magazine photographers started popping up everywhere, and the phone rang off the hook with press requests. Designer Marcel Rochas invited them to a show in which he presented a grey wool robe dress called “Masterpiece.” The model walked down the runway to the platform and Copestake handed her the Master, whom “performed beautifully.” At a local dog show, even Masterpiece became unsettled by the massive crowds, and had to be hoisted atop a 15 platform awaiting police rescue. Air France gave him a farewell party for 20 friends at the airport restaurant, where a special menu was prepared with a dish was named in his honor. He continued in similar much-ballyhooed fashion to Deauville, The Hague, Brussels, Antwerp and beyond.
Columnist Cholly Knickerbocker gossiped, “I hear Masterpieces likes his biscuits served au gratin – a habit he cultivated on his recent visit to Paris where he pranced with nothing but royalty and was the first pooch ever permitted to lunch at the internationally-known Maxim’s.” However, Masterpiece was not all haute couture, acting as an “ambassador of good will” to Cuba, where he earned yet another championship title, and Haiti, where he was awarded a gold medal by the government. He played host at philanthropic fashion shows and events supporting charitable causes ranging from infantile paralysis to cancer.
Masterpiece fever only continued to heighten in his native land. In one of Pulaski’s greatest stunts, deemed the “Miracle on 57th Street,” upon the week leading up to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, Masterpiece led a parade of his comrades from Poodles, Inc. up Fifth Avenue to the department store Milgrim’s. There the dogs joined a display of faux fur articles modeled after the curled Poodle coat. From 9 in the morning to 6 at night, a playpen of Pulaski Poodles occupied one window, and Masterpiece, reclined in his red velvet-lined shadow box, another. Wrote the store’s publicity director, “for over a week people in mid-Manhattan suddenly became more Poodle-conscious than ever before.” Police were required to control the clamoring throngs.
In 1953, two of Masterpiece’s children, Diego and Scusi, accompanied Claire Booth Luce as American Ambassador to Italy. He had become a regular staple of talk shows, climaxing in a two-month-long stint co-hosting the “Dog Show of Champions” with Stella Stetson. He held his own each week with hunting retrievers and hounds, German Shepherd drill teams and seeing-eye dogs, and a gang of Great Danes whom he leaped over effortlessly. He then modeled Easter ensembles on The Dave Garroway show. It was to be his last public appearance.
Only a few weeks later, in late May, Pulaski and his entourage went downstairs to relay a message to a Poodles, Inc. staff member before returning upstairs. Minutes later, Pulaski called for his superstar to seduce potential customers who had wandered into the store, and Masterpiece uncharacteristically did not respond. The store was searched frantically from top to bottom, but Masterpiece was nowhere to be found.
As Pulaski recounted, “The greatest dog in the world had disappeared off the face of the earth.”
The saga is continued in Part II.
Special thanks to the Poodle Club of America for donating its collection, including the Alexis Pulaski scrapbooks, to the AKC, enabling the rediscovery of this unique, otherwise forgotten, tale.
For more deep dives into dog history, check out profiles of legendary Afghan hound breeder Sunny Shay and Whippet pioneers the Shearer sisters, featuring content from the AKC Library & Archives collections.